Women’s passion now their careers

Women’s passion now their careers

By Jamie Morton

5:30 AM Tuesday Mar 11, 2014

In the second of a two-part series, science reporter Jamie Morton meets four women making their mark on New Zealand’s science landscape.

Caroline Little can be found going through earthquake data in the office or setting up seismic equipment, like here on Mt Hikurangi on the East Coast. Photo / GNS Science

Caroline Little can be found going through earthquake data in the office or setting up seismic equipment, like here on Mt Hikurangi on the East Coast. Photo / GNS Science

Caroline Little
GNS Science, science communicator

Caroline Little isn’t scared of earthquakes.

She has found herself beset by them for much of her life, whether it’s been studying seismic hot spots in remote locations, or going through the data once they happen.

Rather, it’s what comes after a quake strikes that Ms Little, a Wellington-based public information specialist with GeoNet, is still getting used to.

“In the first few hours after a large earthquake my adrenalin will be going as my pager will be going off from aftershocks and my phone will be ringing constantly,” she said. “During this time, I’ll be reviewing aftershocks and talking to newspaper, TV, and radio. I definitely still find it nerve-wracking talking with the media – especially doing live TV interviews.”

GeoNet, a collaboration between the Earthquake Commission and GNS Science, picks up 20,000 quakes in New Zealand each year, with between 200 and 300 of them considered “felt”.

Ms Little has been on call for her share of them, sometimes in the middle of the night.

It was never something she had planned to do – she has flirted with law, physics and astronomy.

Settling on geophysics, she found herself enjoying the geology classes more than physics so became a geology major.

“Studying earthquakes let me keep some of that physics that I liked, but it had a practical aspect, I could see why I’d need to know different equations, and see how physics explained and predicted what was happening.”

She likens geology to detective work: while there is much about the Earth that can be explained with geology, there’s so much left to discover.

“New Zealand is particularly great to study because earth processes are happening right now, with volcanoes and earthquakes shaping the land.”

In countries like the UK, a geologist could look at rocks that were millions of years old and try to piece together the processes that got them where they are. Here, those processes are still happening.

“Studying earthquakes in New Zealand is pretty unique, there are only a handful of other countries that have the level of earthquakes we do.”

Her job has taken her all around the country to places a tourist couldn’t easily get to.

She has taken a helicopter to the top of the Southern Alps to set up seismic equipment, and explored the back blocks of the East Cape and Canterbury.

“I feel pretty lucky to have the job that I do, there aren’t many days when I wake up and don’t want to go to work.”

Though she has a science degree, she typically spends her day writing stories for the GeoNet website or giving talks on New Zealand’s earthquakes and volcanoes.

She spends a week each month on earthquake duty, meaning that part of her day involves reviewing all the earthquakes felt around the country. If a big one happens, the day begins with seismologists, engineers, and landslide scientists to discuss the event and any similar previous shakes.

“My job is to distil this information into simple and clear language that the public can understand.”

She was proud of being able to play a small role in understanding our earthquakes.

After the Canterbury quakes, she spent time as part of a team collecting earthquake data.

“This data we collected, coupled with the data from the permanent GeoNet stations is one of the best data sets from anywhere in the world, and although this won’t prevent earthquakes, the amount of research that has and can be done in the coming years by researchers here and overseas will help earthquake prone countries to become more and more resilient.”

Professor Merryn Tawhai
University of Auckland, bio-engineer

Merryn Tawhai combines her love for biology and maths in bio-engineering. Photo / Chris Gorman
Merryn Tawhai combines her love for biology and maths in bio-engineering. Photo / Chris Gorman

At her small rural high school, Professor Merryn Tawhai’s favourite subjects were mathematics and biology.

She wanted a career that would merge the two but, with limited career advice, took up her sister’s suggestion that she try engineering.

Choosing engineering science because of its maths focus, she stumbled by fate upon research that several outstanding academics in the department were leading in biomedical engineering.

“I was hooked. So I somewhat accidentally ended up being able to combine my favourite subjects.”

Today, Professor Tawhai is deputy director of the University of Auckland’s Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI), facilitating the work of more than 100 research and support staff, and up to 70 postgraduate students.

Internationally, she’s known for her work in developing detailed anatomically structured mathematical models of the lung, which she describes as “biology plus maths”.

The human lung is made up of trees of hundreds of thousands of progressively smaller airways and blood vessels, and its physiology could appear overwhelmingly complex. But by using mathematics and physics, complex and seemingly random interactions can be seen to really have a rational, and therefore explainable, basis.

Her team has developed niche technology for the simulation of multi-scale lung structure and function, with broad application across a range of biomedical projects with clinical and commercial potential.

“We can create these models for any individual, and simulate function based on the fundamental physics of how the components of the respiratory system actually interact with each other,” she said. “We can then examine how subtle disease- or age-related changes to the lung affect standard clinical measurements of lung function.”

The research has been supported by significant funding from the US National Institutes of Health, which require that foreign investigators have unique expertise.

Recently, she and colleagues have been investigating variability in patients’ response to acute pulmonary embolism, and predicting the physiological response to respiratory support therapies.

“The range of research areas that this work takes me is fascinating, as well as the range of people that I get to interact with,” she said.

For example, she is now initiating a project with veterinary anaesthetists in Europe to use her models in understanding the high mortality of horses during surgery.

Future research projects would balance the importance of further basic science development with the longer-term objective of translating her research to clinical practice and commercial applications.

“My personal ambition is to see my work being used in direct clinical applications.”

As acting general manager of the ABI, Professor Tawhai has found herself handling more administrative duties than usual.

A typical day might involve meeting with her research team to review progress, revising manuscripts for journal publication and peer-reviewing articles, preparing grant proposals and – currently – overseeing the day-to-day running of the institute.

She meets New Zealand collaborators on projects weekly, and travels overseas at least four times a year to present work at conference and spend time with colleagues overseas.

Since graduating from the university with a PhD in 2001, she has managed to generate her own research income to support her salary – plus that of her team.

Given she has followed a non-traditional academic career path, she’s proud of her recent promotion to professor.

She is also fortunate to have a “supportive and equal” partner, something she believes is the most important thing for a woman with a family and striving to have an academic career.

Her two daughters – the first born at the end of her second year of undergraduate study, the second six months before she finished her PhD – are now following their mother’s path into the sciences.

“My oldest daughter is currently studying towards a BSc, majoring in statistics, and the youngest is considering a career in medicine,” she said.

“The love of biology and maths continues.”

Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith
University of Otago, biological anthropologist

Lisa Matisoo-Smith uses DNA to trace humankind migration. File photo / Brett Phibbs
Lisa Matisoo-Smith uses DNA to trace humankind migration. File photo / Brett Phibbs

Scientists typically devote their lives to propelling humankind into the future.

But Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith is more interested in where we’ve already been and, perhaps more importantly, how we got there.

The University of Otago biological anthropologist is renowned for tracking modern human migration in the Pacific, using an intriguing combination of science to re-trace ancient footsteps.

Flash back to the early 1980s, when she was a student at the University of California with her heart set on East Africa, where exciting new hominid fossils were being discovered.

She wasn’t able to go, so on graduating instead opted for France where work on Neanderthal sites cemented her passion for the field.

Fate stepped in again: this time introducing her to her future husband – a Kiwi.

“He joined me in France and we travelled a bit and decided we wanted to stay together.”

While moving to New Zealand sounded a nice idea, it meant she couldn’t carry on her work studying fossils.

“I was lucky enough to meet my PhD supervisor, Professor Dave Lambert, who introduced me to molecular methods, and Professor Roger Green, who taught me about Pacific prehistory.”

Both gave her the freedom to develop a project that combined the two: looking at a mitochondrial DNA variation in the Pacific rat. In this lay a clever way to trace the origins of the canoes that transported the rats and thus trace the colonisation pathways people took into the Pacific.

As part of recent work, her research group had been using the DNA of dogs, pigs, rats and chickens, all carried by Polynesian explorers in their canoes, to track the movement of humans eastward across the Pacific.

The first clue had been pre-Columbian chicken bones found in South America which matched the same DNA as chickens in the Pacific – the first evidence of probable Polynesian introduction of something from the Pacific to the Americas. This led to her finding a collection of human remains in a museum in South America, and the skulls instantly struck her as being Polynesian.

A Marsden Fund grant allowed her to travel to Isla Mocha, 30km off the coast of Chile, to investigate whether the bones belonged to an exploratory or even migratory group, or had simply been taken there on a European ship.

Professor Matisoo-Smith enjoyed discussing her field with the public – and this month was able to physically involve them in it.

As part of National Geographic’s Genographic Project, a study that has involved more than 650,000 people in 130 countries around the world, 100 Kiwis were invited to have their DNA swabbed. The New Zealand DNA markers, collected by Professor Matisoo-Smith and her colleagues, were being used to trace human migrations and movements across the globe and through time.

“The project focuses both on identifying the pathways that people travelled thousands of years ago but also highlights the recent common origins that we all share.”

She plans to continue research on Polynesian contacts with South America and has just begun a similar project tracking other sea-going cultures, such as the Phoenicians.

“I’m now also getting interested in how our histories and evolutionary pasts might be contributing to health issues suffered by particular populations.”

Above all of this, she wanted to share her science with the public and make it relevant – especially Maori and Pacific communities.

“I want those kids to realise that their ancestors were amazing scientists and scholars.”

Dr Zoe Hilton
Cawthron Institute, marine biologist

Zoe Hilton works on shellfish physiology at the Cawthron Institute.
Zoe Hilton works on shellfish physiology at the Cawthron Institute.

Dr Zoe Hilton suspects she was always a biologist. It just took her 20 years realise.

The Cawthron Institute scientist, who works on shellfish physiology, grew up on the edge of Kahurangi National Park and spent much of her childhood in the bush, at the beach, and wandering around the local estuary.

“I always had my own vege garden and flower garden and pets of every animal you can imagine – pukekos, possums, you name it,” she said. “I remember doing things like going out and collecting all the wild flowers and trying to identify them and find out their names, and I remember dissecting a whitebait when I was really small with my dad’s dissection kit while they were cooking whitebait fritters.”

Her father had studied biology at university – she is sure he encouraged her interest in nature.

Yet at school, she found biology boring so chose not to pursue it as a subject, never occurring to her it could be a career. In her final year, she went on a student exchange to Costa Rica, and found herself snorkelling and volunteering with conservation groups, working with leatherback sea turtles.

“I think that really piqued my interest in marine biology and conservation, but it still didn’t occur to me that I should study it or that it could be a career.”

In fact, it wasn’t until her second semester at the University of Auckland, at 20, that she decided to take a paper in zoology just out of interest to balance up her BA.

The subject grabbed her, and it led her to more papers, a conjoint degree in Science and Arts, with a BSc in Marine Science and eventually a doctorate specialising in physiology.

“Whether you’re talking about humans, fish or shellfish, we have a lot in common in our basic physiology and biochemistry, but a lot of differences,” she said. “I’m constantly fascinated by the complexities and subtleties of how bodies adapt and respond to the world around them.”

In her PhD work, she explored the evolution of triplefins, a diverse family of native and often brightly-coloured small New Zealand coastal fish sometimes seen in rockpools.

The project asked whether physiological adaptation to different habitats helped to create the exceptional diversity of species this country has.

“We have 26 different species which are all endemic and all evolved from a common ancestor here in New Zealand – that’s remarkable biodiversity and it was a fascinating project.”

At the Cawthron Institute, her work in shellfish focuses on supporting shellfish aquaculture.

“Since you don’t have to feed shellfish, they actually filter the plankton out of the water, and it takes no freshwater input, this is one of the most sustainable ways of growing food that we have.

“Our physiology work focuses on larval rearing, health, nutrition, bioenergetics, a whole range of questions, and the overall goals are to increase the ability to farm healthy, high quality food, with low environmental impact and preserve the natural populations.”

Her job description may suggest she’s forever out in the field, traipsing around our coasts, but now, all of her work is based out of the lab and office.

“Some days I’m helping grow baby oysters or mussels in the hatchery for experiments, and some days we’ll be working in the lab with animals in chambers measuring their respiration, or feeding or heart rates.”

In 2012, she was awarded a Unesco-L’Oreal International Fellowship, which allowed her to spend six months on the Mediterranean coast of Spain working with European flat oysters.

Dr Hilton says she loves living in Nelson, surrounded by her siblings, and five nephews. She enjoys gardening, rock climbing, tramping, playing the flute, saxophone, guitar, and singing.

She has lots of bright ideas for the future.

“In science, it’s always a balance between how much you’d like to do, and how much time you have. I’m currently very focused on bioenergetics and shellfish health and disease.”

“I think there is a lot to uncover there and I hope that the research we’re doing makes a genuine difference – that’s what keeps me motivated.”

– NZ Herald

Read more by Jamie Morton

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